You may not know Carol Kaye's name, but you know her work. You've probably heard at least a few dozen examples, and all the words, too. She spent the '60s as the most requested session bassist in L.A., playing on many of the tracks and albums that form the American pop canon: the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Righteous Brothers' “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, ” “La Bamba,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,' ” Joe Cocker's “Feelin' Alright,” the Doors' “Light My Fire,” “I Am A Rock,” “Wichita Lineman,” the majority of Phil Spector's “Wall of Sound”–era productions, as well as most of the Monkees discography. Her credits show up everywhere, from “Theme from Shaft” and Frank Zappa's Freak Out! to Electric Prunes, Dusty Springfield albums, and literally hundreds more. Carol Kaye is said to be the most recorded bassist in history, with a purported 10,000-plus tracks to her credit.
Kaye, now 75, was a member of what has since been termed — much to her dismay (she hates the moniker) — “The Wrecking Crew,” a loose cabal of top L.A. session musicians best known for their work in the '60s. Some days, they played a dozen sessions, and their ranks included future notables Dr. John, Leon Russell and Glen Campbell. Though occasionally other women were included — mostly singers, harpists and string players — Kaye was one of the only women in the Wrecking Crew, and the only one on a rock instrument.
Despite her credits, and being one of the true innovators on electric bass, she's mostly unknown to everyone except for amateur rock historians, bass nerds and admins of studio-lore message boards.
“Back in the '60s, the people who bought the records we were playing on, if they knew the people who made the record were straight — we weren't on drugs, were a mixed group, black and white, and as old as their parents — they wouldn't have bought the records,” Kaye contends. “For that reason, they kept it quiet. Our stories haven't been told. Few people know, and it's a story worth telling, so we can take pride. We were good people, and we cared about the music. The power and technique of studio musicians and engineers are what made so many of these [songs] hits.
“It's a sad thing to see that decades later, people's drug use [was] influenced by musicians whose records they idolized, that the real musicians playing on them were totally straight,” she adds. “Some people smoke and drank — I never did — but we all just went on coffee. We worked day and night, and knew one day it would stop.”
Kaye was also working at every session she could get because she was a single mom with three kids, her mother and a full-time nanny to support (her child support totaled all of 75$ a month). Her first marriage, to musician Al Kaye, lasted only a few years; they'd met playing and touring in a big band. “[He} was a lot older than I was and drank a lot of wine,” she remembers. Her second marriage lasted only a few years, and ended in 1964 after her husband grew violently jealous of men whom Kaye was recording with.
Kaye grew up poor in Everett, Washington, and was raised by musician parents. When she was 6, her folks moved her to Wilmington, California. At 13, she took up steel guitar, and within a few months was assisting her teacher in giving lessons in Long Beach. He loaned her a standard guitar, and she taught in exchange for his lessons. Three or four months later she started playing dates.
While she was a natural and enjoyed gigging for its own sake, her dad had recently left his family, and Kaye's lesson work and gigs helped to support them. As she told NPR's Bob Edwards last year, “I could make money, and it was a powerful thing, at the age of 14, to be able to put food on the table and do what you want to do.”
Her first gig was in 1949, playing as part of a jazz trio at a party. “I played parties and nightclub gigs. Jazz wasn't a danceable music in the early '50s, but soon enough, I was playing dances, all styles of music.”
While Kaye was still a high school student, her musical education consisted of taking the train up to L.A. to see Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and countless big bands. She spent 1954 and 1955 on the road, playing guitar with a big band, and then returned to L.A., where she worked a day job and played five nights a week at jazz clubs.
Kaye was gaining a reputation as a guitarist. After a club date in 1957, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, who helped to oversee the early careers of Little Richard and Ray Charles (among others), approached her about playing on a record. Kaye was hesitant but agreed, despite being unfamiliar with the singer. The session was for Sam Cooke's first proper single, a cover of “Summertime” with “You Send Me” on the flip.
The tide was turning: Jazz clubs were becoming rock clubs, and for Kaye, a single session paid as much as a week's worth of club dates. She began booking as many sessions as she could, and was soon in demand. Her guitar work can be heard on Ritchie Valens' “La Bamba” and dozens of Spector-produced hits, such as the Righteous Brothers' “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling ” and the Crystals' “Then He Kissed Me.”
Though she was often the only female musician on a session, working in a man's world wasn't difficult for Kaye, who prided herself on her professionalism and an ability to outcuss the men. “People like to think it was tough, but I walked into those early sessions with the attitude like, 'I gotta play this stuff?' I was overconfident. I came from jazz,” she laughs. “I played in the black nightclubs every night. In the studios, it didn't matter. I didn't get attitude from anyone for being a woman. It didn't matter if you were a zebra if you could help make a song a hit.”
After a bassist failed to show on a date in 1963, Kaye picked up the instrument that would define her career: “I became the No. 1 call for electric bass, which was a brand-new instrument. I invented most of the bass lines on the records, plus I innovated the teaching style for electric bass — a brand-new style.”
Kaye thrived in her work: “It was wonderful. The 50 or 60 of us who were always working together — to come in every day and work with the L.A. Philharmonic or the horns from Artie Shaw's band was just the highest experience you could have.”
In 1968, after years of working back-to-back sessions all day, every day, and disquieted by the cultural upheaval, drugged-out musicians and the Manson murders, Kaye took a break from studio work. A few years later she began taking only the choice dates, and worked largely on TV and movie themes (everything from M*A*S*H to the Planet of the Apes' proggy score) before withdrawing in the mid-'70s to teach and write bass-instruction books (she has authored 27).
She's spent the last decade digging up and compiling studio documents and union records for her memoirs, in hopes of not only chronicling her contributions to pop but also telling the story of the rest of the musicians behind the hits. “It feels great, as an older musician, to be able to pass things on, but the main thing is for the studio musicians to get their due.”
Unlike most of her still-living peers, Kaye hasn't retired. She lives in Valencia but plans to move back to the Valley soon. “My friends are there. The Valley's got soul. I miss it.”
She still plays the occasional jazz session or gig, gives master class–type lessons to bass pros and does seminars for her sponsor, Ibanez. She laughs, “I might be old, but I'm not done yet.”